The Art of Activism
An island in peril. An artist in his element.
Just beyond the tip of Long Island's North Fork in Gardiners Bay sits a small, misunderstood island. "People have a real negative view of Plum Island," says John Sargent '66. "You hear these stories about it being radioactive, about it having genetically modified monsters. My paintings help dispel those myths."
Recently, Sargent wrapped up a month-long exhibit at Pomfret entitled The Natural Beauty of Plum Island, NY. Each painting is a large, colorful, richly textured interplay of earth, water, and light. The full collection includes thirty-five acrylic and pastel paintings by Sargent and twenty-five prints by the photographer Robert Lorenz.
About fifteen of Sargent's paintings were on display when a slimmed-down version of the exhibit came to Pomfret in November. Waves lapping the rocky shore. Seals turning beneath the waves. Birds soaring overhead. Grass bending in the wind. Together Sargent's paintings depict the natural beauty and simple grandeur of the seaside. "They are portraits of an island whose future is in question," he says.
The Highest Bidder
Sargent is just one voice in a growing chorus of private individuals and nonprofits trying to save Plum Island from development. At the center of the movement is a broad-based alliance of more than ninety conservation, environmental, and civic organizations called Preserve Plum Island Coalition (PPIC). The mission of PPIC is to "secure the permanent protection of the significant natural and cultural resources of Plum Island." In particular, the group wants the majority of the island, approximately 80 percent, to become a National Wildlife Refuge, or its equivalent.
"The island is a beautiful, wild place," Sargent says. "It provides habitat for hundreds of bird and plant species, some rare and endangered. It is also the most significant haul out for grey and harbor seals in southern New England."
Owned and operated by the United States government, Plum Island has long been the subject of controversy. It is the site of the former U.S. military installation Fort Terry (1897) and the historic Plum Gut Lighthouse (1869), but it is best known as the site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, established by the Department of Agriculture in 1954.
A federal research facility dedicated to the study of animal diseases, including hoof and mouth disease, the center comprises 20 percent of the 840-acre island. Today, the whole island is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which assumed ownership from the USDA in 2003, though USDA scientists still manage the lab. The public is not allowed access to the island without special permission.
In September 2008, Congress directed the General Services Administration (GSA) to close the research center, sell the island, and use the proceeds to construct a new lab in Kansas. In January 2009, DHS announced that the new high-security animal disease lab would be called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), setting the stage for the public sale of Plum Island. "The new lab is set to come online in 2023," Sargent says. "If we do nothing, Plum Island will be sold in public auction to the highest bidder and this environmentally significant place will be lost to development."
Beyond the Bubble
John Sargent discovered his passion for art and activism as a student at Pomfret in the mid-1960s. "Cole, Morgan, and Dunbar stand out for me as early mentors," he says. "And especially Hagop Merjian. He first introduced me to social consciousness. I guess you could call it a more urban, global view of things. He widened my world. Showed me what was beyond the bubble."
After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University, Sargent spent two years working in a neighborhood community center and an alternative high school for dropouts in Atlanta, GA. It brought him in close contact with poverty, racial injustice, and the plight of urban public education — interests that would only grow in the decades that followed.
In 1971, disenchanted with US politics and disgusted by Watergate, Sargent bought an old farmhouse in rural Quebec, where he spent the next seven years growing food in his backyard garden and working as an art teacher and woodshop instructor at a center for developmentally disabled young adults. "I contaminated my Pomfret French en parlant Francais Canadian," he says with a grin.
After receiving his master's degree in art education, he returned to Connecticut. He found a job teaching art and encouraging future activists at the Williams School in New London, CT, where former Pomfret faculty member Steve Danenberg was headmaster. In 2008, he retired after twenty-three years of teaching. He currently works out of his home studio in Quaker Hill, CT. The majority of his artwork is now inspired by the landscape and nature of eastern Long Island Sound, a place he has been an observer of for most of his life.
A Chance Encounter
The seeds of the Plum Island show were planted in 2010 when Sargent met photographer Bob Lorenz on a tour of Plum Island organized by Save the Sound. "We were both inspired by the natural subject matter," Sargent recalls, "and we decided to create artwork that could be shown in public venues around Long Island Sound to bring awareness to the public."
Between October 2014 and December 2017, Sargent and Lorenz made ten trips to the island, including a circumnavigation by boat. "We traveled to the island during all four seasons, different times of day and weather conditions. We had to get clearance from Homeland Security for each trip and have our backpacks checked. We were always escorted by security personnel. We did however get to see parts of the island rarely seen. Our project was unique."
Since then, Sargent's paintings have appeared in libraries, museums, and community centers up and down eastern Long Island Sound, including the lab on Plum Island. From March 17-30, the full collection will be shown in Hartford on the concourse between the Capitol and Legislative Office Building.
"Art can be influential," Sargent says. "It can inspire people. It has the power to turn the tide."